Why Attending a Top Law School Matters

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent podcast on T14 law schools is a must listen (photo credit: Kris Krüg).

We’ve heard the argument countless times over the years: It doesn’t matter where you go to college — or law school for that matter. You can as good of an education at a state school as you can at an Ivy League school. We, of course, don’t agree with this argument but we have never once asserted that the in-classroom education at, say, Harvard is better than the in-classroom education at, say, Ohio State. There can be a bad professor at Harvard just as there can be a bad professor at Ohio State. But attending a university with intellectually curious and engaged future movers and shakers, well, yes, that makes a difference. It’s a major difference between attending Harvard Law School or the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State. Sorry, Ohio State.

Top Law Firms Often Only Hire from T14 Law Schools

But we’re also practical. Top law firms include the education of their associates and partners on their vCards. And elite law firms love to boast how their attorneys are graduates of T14 schools — a group that most recently includes the law schools at Yale, Stanford, Harvard, UChicago, Columbia, NYU, UPenn, UVA, UMichigan, UC Berkeley, Duke, Northwestern, Cornell, and Georgetown. In fact, many top law firms simply won’t hire applicants who are educated at schools outside this list. It’s a non-starter.

A Supreme Court Justice Was Asked About Hiring Clerks

And it’s not just top law firms. Malcolm Gladwell, a longtime vocal opponent of the overemphasis our country places on attending elite institutions, tells a story in a recent Revisionist History podcast entitled “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was speaking before an assembly of students at the American University Washington College of Law. In the Q&A, Justice Scalia was asked by a WCL student, “Part of the American ethos is that our society is a meritocracy where hard work and talent lead to success, but there are other important factors like connections and elite degrees and I’m wondering other than grades and journal, what do smart, hard-working WCL students need to do to be outrageously successful in the law?”

The Late Supreme Court Justice Only Hired Clerks from Top Law Schools

Justice Scalia’s answer? “Just work hard and be very good. By and large, unless I have a professor on the faculty who is a good friend and preferably a former law clerk of mine whose judgment I can trust, I’m going to be picking Supreme Court law clerks. I can’t afford a miss. I just can’t. So I’m going to be picking from the law schools that basically are the hardest to get into. They admit the best and the brightest and they may not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. And if they come in the best and brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest, ok?

We Salute the Late Supreme Court Justice for His Candor

We happen to disagree with the vast majority of Justice Scalia’s rulings over the course of his time on our nation’s highest court. But love him or hate him (and even RBG, who happened to disagree with just about all of his rulings, loved him!), the man told it like it was. Even if it didn’t always make him popular. In fact, in this case, he was essentially telling an audience of American University law students that no matter how hard they worked or how talented they might be, he was never going to hire them as a clerk on our nation’s highest court. And how did the law students react to his answer? The room filled with laughter.

 
 

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